The marvel of Mozart is not just the effortless stream of perfectly constructed, sublimely beautiful music that poured from him. There's also something terribly fascinating about the crass humor that he dished out with equal flair.
Peter Shaffer uses that juxtaposition of the pure and the puerile as a major element in his hit play "Amadeus," a 1979 work now enjoying an earnest revival at Fells Point Corner Theatre. The playwright only had to delve into Mozart's letters, along with a few of his less familiar compositions, to find a gold mine of scatological drollery.
Shaffer's master stroke was to add to the mix the figure of Antonio Salieri, the privileged court composer in Vienna who flourished while Mozart had to scrape by. Stories of jealousy between the two were rife back in the day. More tantalizing still, there was talk of Salieri poisoning Mozart.
All great material for a dramatist, of course. Pushkin had fun with it, and his play on the subject yielded an entertaining little opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. But it was Shaffer who put fact and fiction together in a particularly clever way, focusing squarely on the towering, successful Salieri and his unexpected realization that he is "doomed to be forever mediocre."
This Salieri recognizes, after hearing just a few notes, that an immature Austrian named Mozart is the real deal, the one who will be remembered. That reckoning ignites the drama in “Amadeus.”
In the Fells Point Corner Theatre staging, Jeff Murray burrows into the role of Salieri with commendable intensity and nuance. He is especially effective delivering the composer's defiant pleas and threats to God. Murray also strikes the right chords when conveying how increasingly unnerved Salieri becomes by Mozart's music.
Shaffer's version of Mozart, which came as a shock when "Amadeus" first hit the stage, requires a mix of bravado, crassness and vulnerability. For the most part, Rick Lyon-Vaiden conveys that volatile combination persuasively — high-pitched laughs and all. In the second act, the actor ensures that Mozart's hurt and confusion register when he says, "My tongue is stupid, but my heart is not."
Holly Gibbs does a spirited turn in the role of Mozart's wife, Constanze, a woman as unprepared for the intricacies of Viennese high society as her husband. The rest of the cast is less polished and/or confident than the three principals, and that takes a certain toll over the course of the play.
Still, director Barry Feinstein keeps the momentum going and makes good use of the multilevel set designed by Bush Greenbeck. The crucial musical examples are integrated smoothly into the production by sound coordinator Paul Greenbeck.
Costumes (Helenmary Ball, Mary Bova) hit the spot, and so does the lighting (Charles Danforth III).
"Amadeus," which will be back in Baltimore in September to open the Center Stage season, plays so fast and loose with the facts that you can feel a little guilty enjoying its colorful spin.
But there's something genuine about the issues and emotions that pour out onstage. And when poor Salieri, shamed by Mozart's genre-enriching operas, says, "He from the ordinary created legends; I from legends created the ordinary," it has a real sting.
Although Salieri wasn't as uninspired a composer as posterity has it, his music has never regained anything remotely like the stature it once enjoyed. Probably never will.
It's not really fair, perhaps, but as Emperor Joseph II in "Amadeus" repeatedly says, "There it is."